Sign owners will cover 111 ads But City Council won't end campaign

November 05, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Baltimore's largest outdoor sign company, pressured by pending legislation that would make the city the first in the nation to ban liquor and tobacco billboards, plans to yank every one of its ads near schools and churches.

Penn Advertising of Baltimore Inc. will paint a red symbol of a child today on the first of 111 signs to show that none will advertise tobacco or liquor products in the future.

The move comes just days after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. rallied with community leaders in support of a proposal that enjoys wide support in the City Council. Under the measure, liquor and tobacco billboards would be prohibited almost everywhere except in heavy industrial zones, and near the Pimlico Race Course, Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Company officials said they conducted an exhaustive survey of their 1,000 billboards throughout the city this summer. They discovered that about 10 percent of the signs were located within 500 feet of churches or schools, and some of those contained alcohol and tobacco ads.

"This is a tremendous undertaking, but something our company decided to do in response to the concerns raised by Baltimore residents and community groups," said James W. Fisher, Penn Advertising's general manager, in a statement announcing the marking of the billboards.

The first symbol will be painted on a billboard near Westside Elementary School on Fulton Avenue at 10 this morning. Company officials promise to mark the rest by the end of the month.

Top elected officials called the pledge to prohibit all liquor and tobacco ads near schools and churches a positive step.

But Council President Mary Pat Clarke insisted she would press ahead with the legislation to guarantee that schoolchildren would no longer have to walk past glamorous models smoking cigarettes or pouring cognac into a snifter.

"It shows they can do it," Ms. Clarke said yesterday. "I just see it as positive voluntary movement. Our legislation would complete what they started."

Mayor Schmoke also welcomed the action and described Penn as "a very responsible corporate citizen." But he said he would still sign the bills into law to make sure the billboards aren't eventually changed back to advertising cigarettes or spirits.

Grass-roots activists who have argued for years that the billboards target the young in the city's predominantly black and poor neighborhoods were skeptical.

"We want them all down," declared Tina Thompson, a resident of Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood in which most of the billboards advertise liquor and tobacco products.

Bev Thomas, head of the Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation, described the action as odd because Penn Advertising has maintained that it has a self-imposed policy to avoid advertising alcohol and cigarettes near churches and schools.

The company's attorney, Fred M. Lauer, has said that company workers sometimes mistakenly install such billboards too close to schools or churches.

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